The first pantomime of the season and it’s a favourite fixture of mine, the Belgrade’s annual extravaganza featuring the perennial pairing of Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth. Returning for the umpteenth year, writer/director and dame extraordinaire, Lauchlan delivers the goods once again with a blend of traditional and innovative elements. He is also generous enough not to hog all the best/worst jokes to himself.
Appearing as Dame Trott in a range of garish and hilarious outfits, Lauchlan embodies the panto spirit, with good-natured fun and broad comedy. Forming a perfect foil is Craig Hollingsworth’s Simple Simon, a somewhat manic man-child. Hollingsworth delivers a masterclass in how to handle and involve the audience, and it’s an absolute joy to see these two working together again.
Morna Macpherson is a thigh-slappingly heroic Jack. It strikes me that pantomime, with its dames and principal boys, has been years ahead in terms of using pronouns according to how people present themselves to the world. The kids in the audience take the characters at face value, which is how it should be. Macpherson’s macho posturing is in keeping with the genre, rather than being a parody. Rochelle Hollis plays the object of Jack’s affection, the Princess Poppy, doing a good job with a thankless part.
Emma Mulkern’s Fairy Fennel is good value, while Andy Hockley’s Fleshcreep is delightfully wicked, in a Dickensian manner. Hockley is clearly having a lot of fun, donning a range of disguises that we see through right away. David Gilbrook’s attention-deficient King adds to the fairy tale setting.
There is much of what we expect: a slapstick scene involving lemon meringues and oversized syringes, a bit of music hall patter, and plenty of audience participation. Always one to include new ideas with the old, Lauchlan’s beanstalk is the most innovatively staged I’ve ever seen. The giant also impresses and is worth waiting for, but it’s Daisy the Cow who upstages everyone (played by dancers Lewis James and Hudson Tong). I also love the troupe of cockroaches that infests the giant’s castle; they have some nifty choreography courtesy of Jenny Phillips.
The laughs keep coming and the plot chugs on despite all the shenanigans. The first half does run rather long, proving a strain on young bladders, and having to sing a verse about a chip shop every time Simple Simon walks on gets a bit wearing very soon. But these shortcomings don’t amount to a hill of beans.
Bright and colourful with almost everything covered in glitter, this is a hugely enjoyable, highly silly production with enough to keep everyone entertained.
Colour me cheered up, good and proper.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Don’t have a cow! Craig Hollingsworth, Daisy, and Iain Lauchlan (Photo: Nicola Young)
Hot on the heels of Gangsta Granny, Awful Auntie, and Billionaire Boy, comes this latest stage adaptation of a David Walliams novel. Demon Dentist is in similar vein, with all the Roald Dahl-esque features we have come to expect, but with this story there is an extra frisson of horror. Of course, bung ‘dentist’ into the title, and you’ve got a head start when it comes to frightening people!
The story begins with the Tooth Fairy leaving horrible things under kids’ pillows. Instead of shiny coins, they find dogs’ tails, dead mice, squashed toads. Then a new dentist comes to town, offering ‘special’ toothpaste and sugar-free sweets… and the mystery deepens. It falls to 12 year-old, dentist-phobic Alfie and his friend-who-is-a-girl Gabz to investigate.
Leading this excellent ensemble is Sam Varley, who is instantly appealing as big-hearted, bad-toothed Alfie; I’m convinced he is genuinely a schoolboy claiming to be a much older actor rather than the other way around! And when he sings, it’s spine-tinglingly good. Alfie is a carer for his dad (James Mitchell) who is debilitated by a case of black lung from his time as a coal miner. Their relationship is the emotional heart of the play, and the two of them tug at your heartstrings.
Georgia Grant-Anderson is great fun as Gabz, while Misha Malcolm’s social worker Winnie navigates the fine line between broad comedy and touching drama. Extra comedy is added by Zain Abrahams as newsagent Raj (a recurring character in these stories) and Ben Eagle as PC Plank. There is also strong support from Aaron Patel and Mia Overfield in a range of smaller roles.
Emily Harrigan really gets her teeth into the role of Miss Root the evil dentist , like Cruella de Vil taking on NHS patients. A proper, scary villain, Harrigan belts out songs one minute, makes malicious threats the next, all the while looking fabulous. Here the humour is at its darkest and most delicious.
Neal Foster’s direction keeps things moving. There’s a lot of fast-moving action, plenty of fart jokes, and some effective moments of suspense and surprise, but it’s the emotional beats that kick you in the teeth. This play really does have something for everyone. Listening to the children in the audience alternate between screams of laughter and screams of, well, screams, adds to the gruesome, silly fun. It’s a perfect family treat for Halloween and the Birmingham Stage Company have yet another hit on their hands.
You won’t be needing nitrous oxide for this show to make you laugh.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Sam Varney (under the cat), Emily Harrigan, Georgia Grant-Anderson, and Misha Malcolm
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 14th June 2022
Oddsocks Productions’ summer tour this year contains all the hallmarks that make their shows so funny: Shakespeare, music, puppets, daft wigs… but this time, there’s a twist. The original text adapted by in-house genius Andy Barrow is the most famous tragedy ever penned, that of the Great Dane (and I don’t mean Scooby Doo.) So, does it work?
Barrow himself appears as Claudius, a Viking chieftain, looking like Henry VIII but with all the vocal intonations of our current unprincipled and criminal Prime Minister – instantly establishing himself as the villain of the piece. Barrow’s political satire has never been more prevalent, more acerbic, or more necessary, in a play that deals with someone who is unsuitable to rule. He’s also very funny, brimming with vapid Bo-Jo waffle, his motives thinly veiled. Topical asides zing through the script, making us enjoy the villain’s demise all the more when it finally happens.
Barrow’s partner in greatness, the formidable Elli Mackenzie appears as Gertrude, with something of our Queen’s plummy tones but none of her emotional reserve. Mackenzie also plays Hamlet’s BFF, Horatio as a sort of likeable oaf.
In the title role is Theo Toksvig-Stewart, an excellent addition to the team, expressing teenage moodiness through physicality and handling the text with clarity and ease. His ‘To Be’ has him toying with the idea of casting himself from the battlements, and it’s enlightening: his death could come at any precarious second, rather than the Prince contemplating suicide as an abstract concept, as per usual. Thus, Andy Barrow’s direction sheds new light on the well-known speech. This Hamlet is instantly likeable and he’s more than capable of holding the stage on his own.
Amber Lickerish’s Ophelia is played straight, a foil for Hamlet’s capers. When it comes to her mad scene, the jokes fall away. There are moments when Shakespeare’s tragedy bubbles up through the surface silliness. Clearly this troupe could pull off a straight version if they were that way inclined. The result is a patchiness in tone and approach. Luckily, we are not kept waiting long for the daftness to reassert itself over proceedings.
The marvellous Jack Herauville (Laertes, Polonius, etc) is consistently delightful. The climactic fight between Laertes and Hamlet – here done with spears rather than swords – is thrilling and funny. The show is at its best during its madcap moments: a hunting scene with glove puppets, the skirmish in Ophelia’s grave…
Barrow doesn’t send up the material but rather plays with it. It’s a very playful play. There are just a couple of pacing issues keeping it from comedic perfection.
It begins with a disclaimer. What we are about to see bears little or no resemblance to real events, people or anything. We take this with a pinch of salt.
It’s 1977 and two young women arrive in London from Coventry for a new start. They find their way to the eponymous agency, an underground organisation that finds squats for anyone who needs one. I say ‘organisation’, it’s more of a free-for-all, a post-hippy ‘take what you need, the rest is greed’ collective. It’s the optimistic, can-do attitude socialism missing from politics today.
The trouble is the play is a bit of a mess, sprawling across the stage like its set, a conglomeration of furniture and throw pillows. Brechtian techniques abound, in a bid to get us thinking about the issues raised rather than engaging with the characters: projections and playback of contemporary news reports set the scene, but only sometimes. As characters rattle off facts and figures about the people they have homed, it is left to us to wonder if things have improved since then. (They haven’t). A missed opportunity to complement the action with facts and figures from today.
It’s not just homelessness. Domestic violence also features. The dangers women face by walking out at night… All of which are maddeningly relevant today. The play touches on them but doesn’t develop them.
One of its problems is there are too many characters, and these are mainly mouthpieces. The ensemble is lead by Joseph Tweedale as John, whose endeavours lead him to hit the bottle in a big way. John is a flamboyant character, defiant in the face of authority, and Tweedale certainly has charisma. An anti-hero. Antagonistic characters are presented in two-dimensional, satirical ways: a couple of plain clothes coppers provide their own comedy sound effects; a landlord sports a silly bald wig and a huge belly, in true agit-prop style, while those to whom we are supposed to relate speak in arguments, in unconvincing dialogue.
Escaping her abusive boyfriend is Lu (Daisy Ann Fletcher); what lifts her storyline above soap opera cliché is the belter of a song she knocks out—the music in this show is rather splendid, courtesy of composer Boff Whalley, with the versatile cast playing live. The score is infused with reggae and ska beats and its irresistible. The cast is augmented by “The Choir With No Name” in the auditorium’s boxes, adding depth and harmonies to the vocals.
The second act is tighter than the first, beginning with projected photographs of the real residents of the new nation the squatters establish, the short-lived ‘Frestonia’. We only hear about it by report. It might have been interesting to hear from characters living there, what their experience was like, how it all worked, or didn’t…
What we get is agit-prop that doesn’t agitate us. What gets under our skin is not the inequalities built into our society but the music, performed by this hard-working and talented cast. The play needs to pick one of its battles and focus on that in order to have a clearer vision and a greater impact.
It is nothing short of wonderful to be back in a theatre and watching the country’s funniest theatre company, Oddsocks, back on stage, doing what they do so brilliantly, after an enforced hiatus. Every time the company revisits a Shakespeare play they have toured once or twice before, they do something new with it, thereby keeping their work fresh and funny. This new production of Errors benefits from a host of folk songs and sea shanties, where previous versions have been resplendent with pop songs. Here the a capella singing lends atmosphere, and later, when accompanied by instruments, it’s still rousing stuff, keeping the energy levels high during transitions. I suspect this shift in musical style, using tunes in the public domain, is a cost-cutting exercise in these straitened times, but whether it is or it isn’t, it works extremely well.
Director/adaptor Andy Barrow has cast his Mrs in a lead role. Producer Elli Mackenzie appears as Antiphoni of Ephesus (and of course her identical twin from Syracuse) thereby cementing her position in my view that she is the funniest woman in the land. She and Barrow (as the hapless servants Dromio) form an exquisite double act. It’s a rare treat to see them performing together. There’s an abundance of physical comedy in this show, including a sequence with a large trunk that reminds me of Laurel & Hardy’s The Music Box, and the slapstick violence between the pair is like two stooges in search of a third.
Oddsocks veteran, the charming Joseph Maudsley makes a welcome return, appearing as Adrian (husband to Antiphoni – the gender swap doesn’t get in the way of the machinations of Shakespeare’s farcical plot). I was expecting a Rocky moment with Antiphoni calling her hubby’s name – but then, what do I know? Maudsley has an easy-going, immediately likeable stage presence. As do new recruits Harrie Dobby and Jack Herauville who fit right in with the company’s madcap style, delivering a range of supporting roles.
Comic business is Oddsocks’s business, hearkening back to commedia dell’arte; it’s the kind of thing that has to be seen live, for the timing, the daftness, and the sheer skill required to pull it off. And it’s all reasonably faithful to Shakespeare’s text, honed into two-hours traffic on the stage, with the occasional topical reference thrown in for good measure. The good news is this is the start of their summer tour. They will surely be visiting an indoor or outdoor venue near you soon. It would be an error to miss them!
ShopFront Theatre, Theatre Absolute, Coventry, Thursday 10th June 2021
Mademoiselle F was the first person to be diagnosed with what is recognised today as OCD. We join her in her room in a Parisian asylum in the 19th century, as she battles with and succumbs to her compulsions in a never-ending internal struggle. In the title role, Miriam Edwards imbues the part with nervous energy and fragility. She is accompanied by Tyrone Huggins in the role of Polar Bear, who acts as a visitor and a nurse, but mostly as a polar bear. He regales F with stories of his life in a present-day zoo. The stories fascinate F (and us) and his descriptions of the modern world have a strong ecological message.
Writer Vanessa Oakes draws parallels between F in her room and the bear in his enclosure, between the mental illnesses suffered by animals in captivity and the prevalence of smartphones in society and our compulsion to continually check them. There is more to the play than a case study of an all-but forgotten Frenchwoman.
Miriam Edwards finds light and shade in the neuroses of F, and I could listen to Tyrone Huggins all day as he explains everything with warm authority. Director Mark Evans keeps things tight in the empty but intimate setting, further limiting the space with a length of rope, symbolising the polar bears’ dwindling natural habitat.
It’s engaging, provocative stuff but it’s a case of the contemporary social commentary, with its direct relevance to the way we live, overshadowing the thin biography of the eponymous, practically anonymous, mademoiselle.
Author Louis Sachar adapts his own wonderful novel for the stage in this engaging production.
It tells the story of hapless young Stanley Yelnats, an unfortunate young man wrongly accused of the theft of a pair of valuable sneakers and is despatched to a detention camp in the middle of the Texan desert, where he and the other inmates have to dig holes in the dirt all day. It’s character building, you see. Stanley believes his family is cursed since the long-ago theft of a gypsy woman’s pig and, as his history unfolds, we tend to agree with him. But Stanley is able to take charge of his own destiny and change his family’s fortune for ever.
James Backway makes an appealing protagonist as Stanley in this Shawshank Redemption for kids. It is against his goodness that we measure the other characters: the other inmates, who have their own code of honour, and the adults, past and present, most of whom ought to know better. Backway is instantly likeable and sympathetic, and while this is an ensemble piece, he is the lynch pin of the story.
Leona Allen also elicits our sympathy as weirdo inmate Zero, while Harold Addo’s X-Ray quickly establishes his status – Characters are drawn with broad strokes, but this helps to keep the story flowing at a fast pace. Elizabeth Twells is superb value as Stanley’s Mom, and especially in her roles as Myra and as Kissing Kate Barlow, the female outlaw of yesteryear. There is strong support from everyone, including Henry Mettle as Armpit, Ashley D Gayle as Sam the Onion Seller (among other roles) and Matthew Romain as Elya Yelnats and Trout Walker (which is his name, not his occupation). Almost stealing the show is Rhona Croker as the callous deliciously evil Warden who has her own agenda. Of course, this being fiction, she gets her comeuppance in glorious fashion, but there is more to Sachar’s tale than that. Every element, every thread of the storyline is woven together into a complex and satisfying tapestry that speaks to us of destiny and free will, with themes of fairness and racism, friendship and honour.
Director Adam Penford is able to serve all the elements of the story well by keeping the staging simple (but not unsophisticated) with single props serving as signifiers for entire locations – a ladle shows we are in the dinner queue, a battered sofa places us in the rec room… He also brings in puppets (courtesy of Matthew Forbes) for the local fauna – the rattlesnake is particularly fine, and so are the dreaded yellow-spotted lizards. Simon Kenny’s design evokes the desert setting and is enhanced by Prima Mehta’s judicious lighting.
The translation of the story from page to stage works excellently, losing none of the book’s humour, heart or humanity, and the production provides top quality entertainment for all the family without being sentimental or, dare I say it, ‘holesome.
Zero and Hero: Leona Allen and James Backway, holed up in a hole while Rhona Croker shines a light (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Alex Wheatle’s popular YA novel is brought to vibrant life in this irresistible adaptation by Emteaz Hussain. The story charts the events of a single night as a group of friends set off on a quest into enemy territory to right a serious wrong. Basically Venetia (‘V’) needs to reclaim her smartphone from her ex-boyfriend because its photo album contains some extremely intimate pictures of her. The ex lives in ‘Notre Dame’ where other gangs, like the nasty Hunchbackers hold sway. As if that were not enough, the friends have to avoid the villainous Festus – luckily he is easily distinguished by the bandage around his head. And so, the ‘Magnificent Six’ embark on their mission and on the 159 bus.
The play reminds me of several things: Homer’s Odyssey, The Warriors, Stand By Me, Ostrich Boys- even The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as the friends encounter peril after peril at each stage of their journey. The witty use of urban slang brings to mind A Clockwork Orange. One of the key joys of this piece is its language; utterly current and streetwise – I’m sure the younger members of the audience got it more than I did.
What sets this show apart is that it’s a beatbox musical – two words almost guaranteed to put me off, but no, I find this to be sophisticated, stylish stuff as the cast, using only their vocal abilities, create all the music live, before our very ears. There are harmonies, percussive beats, melodic accompaniments… The original songs by composer Conrad Murray are tuneful; the entire score is a varied palette, and it is all performed flawlessly by this extremely talented ensemble.
Aimee Powell leads the singing as V, with a sweetly soulful voice, while others provide raps: Zak Douglas’s lovesick Bit and Nigar Yeva’s plucky Saira perform with commitment and intensity to the rasping beats of Khal Shaw’s sometimes hysterical Jonah. Kate Donnachie’s oddball, bike-riding Bushkid, the quirkiest member of the squad, also has a rich singing voice that soars above the rhythm.
As I say, they’re a talented bunch, with the moves to match but for me the star turn comes from Olisa Odele as wannabe chef McKay, who sings, raps, moves and acts like a young and tubbier Todrick Hall. Corey Campbell impresses as McKay’s troubled big brother Nesta, while Simi Egbejumi-David’s Festus is suitably menacing and nasty.
The fights, directed by Roger Bartlett are well, almost gracefully, choreographed. The action scenes sometimes have a cartoony aspect for comic effect. Co-directors Corey Campbell and Esther Richardson draw upon the actors’ skills at slow-motion and physical theatre to enhance the storytelling. It all adds up to a highly effective staging of an engaging story with likeable characters and beautiful music.
Although this is aimed largely at a teen audience, there is plenty for everyone else to enjoy, in the telling and in what is being told. Gangsters are so often glamorised in popular culture; this play confronts that image with stark reminders of the harsh realities of lives lost or blighted by these carryings-on. There are other nobler, more honourable ways to live. The Magnificent Six show that kids can gang together for positive outcomes.
An uplifting, impressive show that delivers its social commentary with humour and a lot of heart.
Aimee Powell, Nigar Yeva, Olisa Odele & Kate Donnachie (Photo: Robert Day)
Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 13th March, 2019
Avant Garde Dance Company’s take on the Dickens classic offers a few surprises among an impressive display of contemporary dance, informed by an urban aesthetic. It certainly is a sight to see: the precision, the skill, the energy, but I have a problem with the first act. Apart from an introduction from the Artful Dodger (Aaron Nuttall) there is little in the way of exposition. The scenes that link the dance sequences are therefore not as clear as they could be, and so while I appreciate the mechanised, repetitive dehumanised routines in the workhouse, I’m not entirely sure who the characters are who plot their escape.
At the top of the second act, Dodger gives us a recap and mentions the others by name at last. It seems a clumsy way to do things, rather than simply amending the dialogue in the earlier scenes, but at least it leads to better storytelling. There is some clever rhyming and word play in Maxwell Golding’s writing thought, and some cheeky references to song titles from the Lionel Bart musical.
Arran Green’s Fagin is tall and slender, towering over the action in his big coat and top hat. Green moves with elegance and humour – spoken scenes are also accompanied by choreographed moves and gestures – and there is a lovely, sinuous quality here.
There is a striking duo (or pas de deux, I suppose) between Bill (Stefano A Addae) and Nancy (Ellis Saul) and a surprising twist (as in plot rather than Chubby Checker) from Sia Gbamoi as Oliver.
Yann Seabra’s costumes reference the story’s Victorian origins, while the score (by various) is relentlessly of the now. Seabra’s set, before it becomes other things, starts off as a big fence. Which is what Fagin is, if you think about it! Jackie Shemish’s lighting is as taut and evocative as the performances; it’s as though the lighting is another dancer!
Tony Adigun’s choreography is expressive, mixing fluidity of forms with sharper, jerkier, inorganic moves but I think as much attention needs to be given to characterisation in the spoken scenes as is devoted to the dance sequences. Rather than being a moving story, I find myself marvelling at the performance of this amazing ensemble rather than engaging with what the characters experience.
When Ollie and Caro and their teenage daughter move into their new ‘forever home’ they soon are made aware of the house’s shady past. Local tittle-tattle is rife and before long, strange things are afoot: objects moving, doors slamming, shadowy figures at the window…
And so the stage is set for Peter James’s haunted house thriller. Shaun McKenna’s adaptation uses every trick in the book, so to speak, to give us the conventional shocks and surprises we expect. But what makes this story fresh and alive is it is bang up-to-date, with plenty of current pop culture references along with modern technology being put to use. FaceTime and an Alexa both help further the plot, providing some scary moments.
Joe McFadden is web designer Ollie – he even gets to dance about a little for a quick Strictly in-joke – and he portrays the descent from enthusiastic sceptic to desperate believer with energy, credibility and likeability. Rita Simons plays against type (she was formerly good-time gal Roxy Mitchell in EastEnders) and is fine in a role which has lots of exposition and some great moments of reaction. Persephone Swales-Dawson’s teenaged Jade has to cope with some too-trendy-by-half dialogue, actually saying things like “OMG” and “Lol” rather than reserving such argot for online communication. She also has some great reactive moments.
There is enjoyable character work from Tricia Deighton as local hippy-dippy psychic Annie, and I like Padraig Lynch’s genial vicar, Fortinbras. Charlie Clements (another EastEnders escapee) gives strong support as computer geek, Chris, who may or may not be up to no good, while Leon Stewart makes an impression as Phil the builder.
Ian Talbot’s direction strikes a balance between building tension and releasing it, either with shocks or comic relief, abetted by Michael Holt’s gorgeously gothic set and Jason Taylor’s lighting, which is both subtle and dramatic.
Atmospheric and entertaining, this is a conventional yet effective chiller, a ghost story for our times.
Padraig Lynch, Joe McFadden, Rita Simons, and Persephone Swales-Dawson face something scarier than a PPI call…